Michael J. Allen. Published by The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA. 2009. 305 pages, plus notes, bibliography, acknowledgements and index.
Introduction: Michael J. Allen exhumes the legacy of loss, peace with honor, and the mind-numbing duration of Vietnam extended by a country lead by “seemingly marginal figures” playing “leading roles” to account for each and every prisoner of war (POW) and missing in action (MIA) in the Vietnam War. “Fewer Americans were missing after the Vietnam War than after earlier wars,” yet a vocal and persistent POW/MIA lobby corralled Senate committees, hundreds of Department of Defense personnel, and over $100 million annually. These activist harpooned Presidents from both political parties as “the bitter memories propagated by POWs and MIAs made it difficult for conservative leaders to resurrect prewar visions of national unity” and overcome mid-century liberalism. Michael Allen notes through a cultural perspective the POW/MIA movement planted the seeds for a conservative movement in the 1960’s “wrapped in the politics of loss and promoted and popularized through the perpetual search for the missing.” These activist – the League of Wives compelled Presidents to expend political and military resources to recovering and gaining the release of POWs and MIAs. This unprecedented accounting for lost Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines had never achieved the political clout after previous major wars up through the Korean War. Michael Allen’s extremely well researched book outlines previous measures nations have taken to exchange POW’s and bury the dead. Most times as with most war activities, the preservation of individuality in death is lost in the mass destruction of war.
Content Review: Until the Last Man Comes Home… deserves the reverence and respect to read, question and contemplate the politics of war and the glorification of war heroes, dead, injured, MIA, and POW. It deserves to be read not only to relive the narrow focus contained in the thesis of accounting for each and every American POW and MIA, but to come to a greater understanding of the tragic loss of over 58,236 U.S military – over 1,740 still listed as missing in action. The Vietnam War – the longest engagement in American history so far cost Vietnam over 1,600,000 military and civilian losses plus economic loss to “win the war.” It was a war fought to contain communism – a purpose muted in 1993 with demise of the former Soviet Union. The United States continues to grapple with the Vietnam War making reference to Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of Vietnam meaning the sacrifice of military members for vague national objectives waged without the relentless full force of the military and national support. Michael Allen paints the picture clearly portraying the Nixon Administration taking hold of a ‘movement’ and helping organize and strengthen a group of ‘downed pilot wives’ into a national organization that would – if not galvanize the national attention – at least capture sympathy, empathy, and pull the patriotic heartstrings of Americans from all walks of life.
Reviewer’s Conclusions: Michael J. Allen wrote a very detailed account of the legacy of the POW MIA campaign. It wasn’t as much a compelling read as it was a persistent read. Allen provides a cultural perspective shining a new ray of political interpretation on Presidential policies from Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. Political games played at the expense of U. S. lives for personal political gain while attacking the service and exploiting innuendo about the service of political candidates who actually served in Vietnam. For those of us who lived through the Vietnam War, Presidential names, cabinet members, and activist names leap from the pages providing clarity to time, place, and issues. Initial POW/MIA activist leaders like Sybil Stockdale, Carole Hanson, Louise Mulligan, Andrea Rander and Mary Mearns met with President Nixon to pressure the White House and Congress to get release of the POWs. Nixon turned the wives pleas into a political event/organization to extend the war seeking the release of POWs. These women – committed to a cause directly affecting their lives and families were provided enormous assistance organizing and creating mailing databases to reach POW/MIA families nationwide. Later the League of Wives is transformed into the League of Families and leadership is grabbed by Ann Mills Griffiths - a seemingly marginal figure who led the group for over 17 years post Vietnam and reached deep into Defense and political parties to keep the issues elevated in the National debate.
The United States struggles to put the Vietnam War in perspective – how could we lose this war when we were superior in every respect other than national will. Vietnam cost lives, and affected the politics of Presidents through the 2008 elections. Both Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) and Senator John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts) promoted their service, and were assailed by their critics for their service. One quote from retired General Wesley Clarke to CBS’s Face the Nation Bob Shieffer sums up not only the value of the service, but questions the validity of experience gained as a result of that service – was “getting shot down the best qualification to become president.?” On the flip side, the attacks by critics about Senator McCain and Kerry’s service are reprehensible, because no matter captured or injured, their records reflect personal commitment.
Personally, I struggled to read this book putting it aside many times contemplating the political maneuvering to appease a small group of predominately white women seeking to gain release of their white flyer POW spouses.
“Americans were only dimly aware of the sociological characteristics of the POW population. The fact that most captives were pilots was widely reported, but the ramifications were unclear to most civilians. What everyone understood through – what every new story and speech made clear – was that these were family men.”
I wrestled with the larger issue of thousands of missing in action infantry soldiers, river boat sailors, Marines, and para-rescue airmen who were lost. Then I became almost angry at how the League changed after the war to demand almost an impossible accounting for every man lost in Vietnam holding the Vietnamese responsible for death and torture while failing to acknowledge the enormous price the Vietnamese paid with their lives and homeland during their struggle for self-determination. Revisiting concepts from Nixon “Peace with Honor” and Regan “A noble cause” create visceral emotion considering the lives affected - were lost fighting a “cold war” of containment to support an ideal of freedom and democracy and the right to self-determination. MIA brother Jeff Donahue summed up accountability stating “there is no greater moral imperative than accounting for the men who served their country,” yet “there is no one in the government who is accountable on the issue.” And finally – “Even if nobody walks out of that jungle, I can’t let them forget what happened….This wasn’t anything that was noble.”
The sobering reality is that we have a responsibility to never forget when we are engaged in military action. We can never rest peacefully while our military is deployed executing the orders of the President and our Congress. We have a responsibility to our military to support them with resources and will to complete their mission and return to U. S. soil as quickly as tactically and strategically possible. We have to stay involved in the national discussion about the use of our military and we have the responsibility to hold our elected congressmen and President accountable for military engagements. Our system of liberty and justice for all demands an openness to review our leadership’s actions during wartime and support swift conclusion or hold accountable for negligent or pro-longing conflict for political gain.
Reviewer: Jeff Morris. Boise, Idaho. May 10, 2010